Tsumura Kikuko|Roddy Doyle

(c) nakaban

Tsumura Kikuko|Roddy Doyle

Nov 2021

Dear Roddy Doyle,

Hello, and thank you so much for your letter! Before receiving it, I’d of course been in touch with the editor about doing this exchange with you, but when a letter actually arrived from you it nonetheless came as a surprise. It felt a bit like I was dreaming. Thank you so much!

Letters are wonderful things, aren’t they? Exchanging letters with someone by post brings about a complex mix of feelings for me—not knowing whether I’ll get a reply, having no proof that my letter has even arrived, alongside a sense of satisfaction at having said what I want to say—but I also think it’s more interesting than speaking on the telephone or over text with someone, where both parties expect an immediate response from one another. With letters, it’s taken as a matter of course that there’s a lag in time, and unlike instantaneous communication, which feels like it belongs to all of the people involved in the conversation, with letters you feel like the contents are being entrusted with you personally each time. Emails aren’t that dissimilar to letters, but I still find it a bit frightening that they’re delivered to their recipient the moment you hit the send button.

For me, writing a novel is a little bit like writing a letter—a letter with an undetermined recipient. I guess I start out at first in the hope of some kind of response or reaction, but after spending so long writing, that hope morphs into something not unlike a kind of resignation—‘well, I’ve written what I wanted to, and I enjoyed it, so never mind about the reply’—and then after I’ve been through the process of it being turned into a book and have gained a little distance from it, because it occurs to me at that stage what a weird thing I’ve written and I start to feel that I want it off my hands as soon as possible, only then, by the time I’m starting to forget about it entirely, will someone say to me, ‘Oh, I read that.’ It’s like a drawn-out version of the letter-writing process.

I really enjoyed hearing about the letters you’ve written to your friend, and your mother. Going to the shop and chatting with Mr and Mrs Butler, walking to the bank and coming back on the bus, speaking to your aunt on the phone, eating shepherd’s pie for dinner—those vivid details from your mother’s life seem so enviable in today’s world, when we have to be so careful with everything we do while we’re out of the house.

I also think it’s great that you’ve had that experience of writing letters with your mother. My mother doesn’t like writing, and doesn’t read books either. It occurs to me now that I’ve maybe never exchanged letters with her. But my mother has the most beautiful handwriting. In contrast, although writing is what I do for a living, my handwriting is a mess.

Thank you so much for reading “A Ghost in Brazil.” I considered a lot of different locations for the place that the old-man ghost wanted to go—I thought about Tibet, and Rovaniemi, and so on—but in the end I landed on the Aran Islands, because that’s the place that I myself wanted to go. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to invest so much feeling into writing the protagonist’s sense of regret otherwise. I’ve liked ghost stories since I was young, and yet I never once suspected that I’d be writing them when I grew up. But “A Ghost in Brazil” came out of a sense of curiosity: since I had, it seemed, become a novelist, what would come of putting those skills to writing a ghost story? In Japan, we divide ghosts into various categories—there are the haigorei, a bit like guardian spirits that stick to particular people; the jibakurei that haunt a particular spot; and the fuyurei that just kind of float around—and I started writing the story out of the idea I had that seeing as the fuyūrei wouldn’t need to pay transport fees, they could presumably travel long distances for nothing. (Actually the Japanese title of the story is ‘Fuyūrei brazil’—literally, “floating-ghost Brazil.”) If someone had told my teenage self that I’d write a story like that, and that it would be translated into English and read by Roddy Doyle, there’s no way I’d have believed them—that thought gives me a lot of pleasure.  

While writing this letter to you, it occurred to me that I should try writing about a ghost in a football stadium. The story as I imagine it is about a ghost who loves watching football and attempts to support their favourite team, taking advantage of the fact that even if they storm onto the pitch they don’t get in trouble…. It probably won’t turn out well, but I have the feeling that I’ll enjoy writing it.

I’m delighted that I got to talk with you about football. The story about you beginning to support Chelsea not knowing that they played in blue, because you’d only ever seen them on black-and-white TV, is so good. I guess in a way it was inconvenient not to know in some way, but I also imagine you got to have another surprise when you found out the colour of their kit.

This might be surprising to you, having become a Chelsea fan at the age of nine, but it was when I became able to talk about football in my late twenties that I felt for the first time that I’d finally become a grown-up. Since my knowledge about football clubs has expanded, I’ve started to understand what the Gallagher brothers (former members of Oasis) say about Manchester City, and I can have a conversation with people I’ve just met without overthinking things. If I’m looking at the league rankings with someone who supports a particular team and ask them how things are going for them recently, they’ll talk forever about how their team is faring, and even people who don’t support any particular club will usually humour me for a while in talking about the Japanese national players.

With people who prefer baseball to football, I get them to talk to me about baseball. People who support some kind of sports team generally have interesting things to say. I think it’s actually quite a complex thing to accept the victories and failures of matches whose outcome you have no power to affect, and I trust people who have the spine for that. It was while I was mulling over the question of how someone would react if they were truly tortured by those tricks of fate that I conceived the character of the football fan who goes AWOL in the huge park in There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job.

For a few years I was so consumed by watching J-League matches that I didn’t have any time for the Premier League, but this season I’ve begun to watch it again. When I started watching football, Mourinho was the Chelsea manager, and Lampard and Terry were in the team, so the whole chain of events that saw Lampard becoming manager, and then being fired, gives me the sense of exactly the kind of drama that I seek from football. The current manager, Tuchel, was manager of Mainz 05 when Shinji Okazaki was on the team, and of Borussia Dortmund when Shinji Kagawa was playing for them, so I have some familiarity with him. Even if I can’t watch every bit of all of the matches, football for me is the pleasure of being able to directly watch all the vicissitudes of fate playing out for someone whose face you’ve come to know.

While I was writing this letter, I looked up photos and videos of Dalymount Park, the stadium where your local team, the Bohemians, play. The gates with the skulls painted on is really fun, and the picture I found of red flares being thrown from the stands really matches my image of what a European stadium is like. It looks like the kind of stadium you’d stumble across in a residential district. Looking at it on Google street view, I see that the murals are really interesting—it made me really want to visit. There’re lots of interesting aspects to top-league football like the Premier League, but supporting a smaller local team is also wonderful. I like hearing football chants. The chants sung by people who watch sports seem to me to exist outside of good and bad or right or wrong, like primitive choruses that can’t be judged.

I feel really honoured to have heard from you about your experience of rereading the Barrytown Trilogy. The world definitely has changed since then, hasn’t it. And yet, in today’s Japan, there are still many men like George Burgess who sleep with women without obtaining their consent, and don’t stop to think about the fact that a baby might come out of it. I like how Sharon’s insistence that her baby’s father was a Spanish sailor, and the way people around her accept that, function as an indirect and yet powerful denial of people like George Burgess. When people like him say that they want to accept the existence of a child they’ve fathered, it’s always too late, and they don’t have what it takes to do it.

The story about your father continuing to wear his glasses even after his eye surgery because your mother was used to the sight of him with them on is truly great. I myself prefer my own face with glasses, so it makes a lot of sense to me. Speaking of glasses, I feel that among the young people making the kind of punk and emo music I like listening to, the number of spectacle-wearers is on the rise (maybe it’s something to do with the fact that in an age like ours, picking up an instrument and learning to play it has become a geekier pursuit), but when they become famous they sometimes stop—maybe they have laser surgery, I don’t know—and that makes me kind of sad.

You pointing out that the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age succeeded the Spanish Flu outbreak really made me sit up in my seat. In my case, the coronavirus has seen me leaving the place I’d grown up in and begin living somewhere else. I miss my friends, whom I now get to see less often, but through sharing all kinds of information about the virus and the vaccine, and asking one another quite candidly to help one another out if something happens to us, I feel that in a way my bonds with them have been strengthened. People have begun to think differently about working remotely also, which means that the burden of commuting has been lessened for many people. Certain aspects of life, which didn’t really need to be the way they were but which we’ve stuck to stolidly until now, have been brought to light by the pandemic.

I feel like overcoming the pandemic isn’t a matter of continuing to live exactly as we were before, but rather of learning from this situation, and making the future a bit better. I’m also praying that ahead of all of this present hardship lies a new, fairer “normal.”

One of the hard things at the moment is that it’s so difficult to take holidays, but reading your memories of working in the gherkin processing plant in Dusseldorf, I got to feel as if I were travelling. Until February, I’ve got my reading carved out for me with work, but in March I’m going to read David Copperfield. I’m looking forward to meeting Mr. Micawber.

I know these aren’t the easiest times, so please take good care of yourself. And really, thank you so much for your reply.

Tsumura Kikuko

7th November 2021


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※本作品の全文は、『すばる 2022年4月号』でご覧いただけます。


TsumuraKikuko(c) KODANSHA


Tsumura Kikuko was born in 1978 in Osaka. She has won numerous Japanese literary awards, including the Noma Literary New Face Prize (for Myujikku buresu yu!! [Music Bbless you!!], 2008) and the Akutagawa Prize (for Potosu raimu no fune [The lime pothos boat], 2009). In 2018 she won the Sixth Soccer Book Prize for This Is the Day (in Japanese), a collection of 11 short stories she wrote about supporters of 22 fictional J2 League teams. Her short story “The Water Tower and the Turtle,” translated by Polly Barton, won a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, her first novel translated into English (also by Barton), was published in the UK in 2020 and in the USA in 2021 by Bloomsbury.


PollyBarton(c) Garry Loughlin


Polly Barton is a translator of Japanese literature and non-fiction, currently based in Bristol, UK. She has translated short stories for Words Without Borders, The White Review, and Granta. Full-length translations include Spring Garden by Shibasaki Tomoka (Pushkin Press, 2017), Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko (Tilted Axis Press/Soft Skull Press, 2020), and There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Tsumura Kikuko (Bloomsbury, 2020). Her non-fiction debut, Fifty Sounds, was out with Fitzcarraldo Editions in April 2021.